I’m writing this on the airplane back to Portugal, via a stop in Madrid and a very late arrival tonight. Somehow though, it feels less like we’re going home than leaving it behind. As we said goodbye to our friends at the airport, I had to remind myself that I met them only twelve short days ago. Already these people inhabit a closer place to my heart than many I’ve known for years.

I am completely at a loss as to how I can describe the warmth with which we were treated during our time in Israel. I know it’ll take me a while to process everything, to be able to put things into words. But I do know right now that I will be feeling the impact of this too-short trip for a long time to come. When we were waiting to begin boarding, Gabe asked me if I had had a fun trip. I said yes, of course, but not in a laid back vacation sit on the beach kind of way (we don’t really do that kind of vacation anyway). This trip was, at the risk of being cliched, nothing short of life-changing. It opened my eyes to so many things, to a country and a way of life so refreshingly honest and vibrantly, fully lived that it felt like a homecoming.

Having been there for Memorial Day, I can say that one of the most refreshing things about Israel is that they openly acknowledge the fact that loss is truly universal. Everyone there has lost someone, everyone mourns, and everyone feels intimately the cost of Israel’s continued existence. Death is truly seen as a part of life there, which is a fact that we constantly strive to deny or ignore in the United States. Instead of making people inured or blase though, their intimacy with mortality seems to release the Israelis to enjoy life with greater gusto, to feel things more strongly, to laugh louder and harder than we do, to allow tears to flow down the faces of big strong men with no shame implied or felt.

To my immense relief, this meant that small talk was almost entirely dispensed with when meeting new people. Instead we got right down to the meat of things, and I was soon making dirty jokes with the young men and discussing children with the women. It was such a relief to meet so many genuinely open people, to dispense with the false artificiality of Americans or even Europeans, and to simply be myself — including the darker, less savory aspects.

In fact, I think I talked more about my father in the past ten days than I have in the year since he died, simply because I felt for once as though the taboo was lifted. People were open to hearing my story, and didn’t greet it with false sympathy or discomfort, but rather took it in stride. It was hugely refreshing to no longer feel like a freak, the twenty-something year old with only one parent. Instead, my curse became a shared burden, my shame no longer applied.

I will write more on the culture of loss another time. But for now, I wanted to express how incredibly grateful I am for all that was given to us during our time in Israel, the laughter, tears, meals, and trips that we shared with friends both new and old. I already can’t wait to return, and am busily scheming how we can get away with doing so before too long.